Disney Trip on the cheap, vol. 2

This is how bad I am about blog posting. I legit have a half dozen posts that I have started and not completed. So here goes. A lot of information to take in here… hopefully it makes sense!

I’m not one of those “people“ that is obsessed with Disney and only vacations there. I mean,  well, maybe I am compared to others. We have been going annually, so I guess that makes me one of those “people.”  We travel other places and we like to go to more relaxing, non-crowded spots, but, let’s be honest, we have kids and we are able to do our trips relatively inexpensive. The reason I blog mostly about Disney is because it seems to be a hot topic of conversation with people. Most think it is out of their price range or a once-in-a-lifetime thing because of the cost. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be.

About a month six months  seven months ago, we came back from our second Disney trip that was paid for primarily through points and credit card rewards (to clarify, second trip primarily paid through points – not second Disney trip). We’ve become much more savvy in navigating the points/miles world and this time it was easier for us to be able to book our trip on points (because we had more of them and more options) and we did pretty well in the process.

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Feelin’ pretty super about our incredible vacation!

A step back…

So prior to our October 2017 trip, we had taken a trip in September 2016 which I blogged about here and here. I honestly didn’t think we would be getting back to Disney for at least 18 months, because I needed to get enough points together to make it happen. But a few things happened that made achieving this trip even easier.

Disney Chase Visa referrals = Cheap (Free) Disney Park Tickets

On our first trip, I offset the cost of our Disney park tickets with a signup bonus from my Chase Sapphire Preferred card (50,000 points signup bonus + 10,000 point authorized user bonus  + spending ended up about 66,000 points) so I used the travel statement credit option of $660 on our park tickets. At the time, it seemed like a great option (and instead of paying the $660 out of pocket it was), but now I know the true value of those 66,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, and I wouldn’t do that again (booking travel, or transferring the points to other travel partners, provides a better value for your points than redeeming for cash). ANYWAY, this time, I had been talking with folks in different Facebook groups as well as through my blog (and friends, too), about the no-annual fee Disney Chase visa. If you spend $500,you get a $200 gift card (UPDATE: it is now a statement credit, but either way, free $200, and this one’s more flexible), and I received $50 for every referral (UPDATE: it’s now $100 per referral. This is a great referral program that works for anyone! Just go to chasereferafriend.com and plug in your account information – it generates a referral link). Disney allows you to earn up to $500 each calendar year in referrals, and I had about $350 earned from 2016 and, in the first couple months of 2017, I earned an additional $450 (I know, I couldn’t believe it either until I saw my statement – but it’s a great product and so many people are taking advantage of it!). I thought, “wow, we are well on our way to paying for our park tickets.” My husband didn’t have the card, yet, so I used my last referral allotment to refer him to the card, so he could, in turn, get the $200 gift card and I could get a $50 bonus for referring him.

So, now, we’re up to $1050 in Disney dollars and gift cards, enough for two 7-day parkhoppers, with about $20 leftover.

We only had to pay out of pocket for my son’s ticket (my daughter is under 2, and any child under 3 is admitted free). We purchased my son’s ticket through Undercover Tourist, which I highly recommend using for any Disney ticket purchases. Depending on the level of ticket purchased, you can save a significant amount of cash. Additionally, my American Express card has different offers with retailers from time to time, and they had an offer with Undercover tourist (at least once, sometimes twice a year), where if you made a $150+ purchase you get $30 back on your statement. I knew I would be making the purchase anyway, so I purchased during this offer period. The ticket cost me around $420 ($450 – $30 back). The same ticket, with taxes, from Disney would have been about $500. So all in, I was able to purchase three 7-day park hoppers (2 adults, and 1 child) for $420, saving me more than $1,000!

My husband was able to get a few more referral bonuses before we went on our trip (my mom signed up for one, and a couple others), and we ended up with about $180 in spending money between referral bonuses and the few dollars we received from meeting the minimum spend ($500 =$5). I don’t just do the referrals for the money – it is a really great offer for the minimum spend!

6 more free nights at the Walt Disney World Dolphin

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Best part about the Dolphin? Proximity to Epcot and Hollywood Studios! Easily walk to Epcot along the Boardwalk. No waiting for buses!

 

In January of 2017, I decided that I wanted to signup for a couple new cards to secure enough SPG points to stay at the Dolphin again. Since the last time that I signed up for a card (the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card), Marriott and Starwood Preferred Guest merged, and now Marriott and Starwood points are transferable. This means that you have even more options for accruing SPG or Marriott points – now you can sign up for the Marriott Chase Visa, spend $3,000, and get 75,000 Marriott points – which transfers 3:1 to SPG’s program – so 75,000 Marriott points will yield  25,000 SPG points. It’s very easy to sign up for both programs online and link them so you can transfer your points between programs, and the transfers are instantaneous.

I decided to sign up for the Marriott Chase Business card (I own a few rental properties, and being a landlord counts as a small business) to get the signup bonus. This is another post for another time, but my reason for signing up for the business card vs. the standard card was strategic (it doesn’t count on your personal credit because it is a business card, and if you are planning on signing up for any other chase cards, you want to keep your personal cards under a total of 5 new cards in 24 months), as it doesn’t count against me on my credit. Once I met the minimum spend, I transferred my Marriott points to my SPG account. Then, Starwood Preferred Guest was having an increased signup offer on their American Express card (35,000 points vs. the standard 25,000). I already had signed up for the SPG AmEx (and subsequently canceled it when it came time to pay the annual fee), but I didn’t have the SPG Business card. So I signed up for the SPG Business AmEx, made the minimum spend and got 35,000 points. I have since become smarter about which cards I use for everyday spend and the SPG Business AmEx is my go-to. The value of points on this card is significantly higher than others (for example, one night at the Dolphin will cost you 10,000 SPG points UPDATE 3/18: Now it is 12,000 SPG points, but the fifth night is free – so 48,000 points for 5 nights). After the two credit card signups I had more than enough points for my 6 nights at the Dolphin.. I was only in the hole for the $28/night resort fee ($168).

Moving on to airfare…

Around December 2016, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card had been out for a few months and in the points game it was the “it card” to have. Everyone was talking about it – it provided a 100,000 point signup bonus after spending $4,000 in three months (RIP, high signup bonus, RIP…). The card came with a hefty annual fee – $450 – but at the time it was offering a $300 annual travel credit – and the credit was calendar year, not annual (it has since changed to annual – so you will get your travel credit the same month each year). My husband opened the card in December, so he had a $300 2016 credit to use, and another in 2017. We effectively got $600 worth of travel credit out of the $450 fee, on top of the 100,000 (!!!) Chase Ultimate Rewards points. We planned to use these points to transfer to Southwest to fly to Orlando.

When the time came to purchase airfare, I was disappointed in how many points (and likewise, how much in dollars) Southwest was charging for the flights. It was a lot, and although we had enough, it was going to wipe us out of Chase Ultimate Rewards, and for Orlando, I just didn’t think it was worth it (there are too many other options  to use our Ultimate Rewards points to blow it all on some flights to Orlando – which should be cheap). So I signed up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards visa (they have a few different ones, and I signed up for a different one than last time), and got a 60,000 point bonus. So we reluctantly paid a lot of points (but not cash) for our tickets and kept on with the planning. I still kept an eye on flight prices though, because Southwest will refund your points if you cancel, and I felt my points were better spent flying somewhere else than a two-hour flight to Orlando when everyone flies to Orlando (Philadelphia has a competitive market for Orlando flights – with at least 4 or 5 different carriers with tons of nonstop flight options).

A week before our trip, I saw Spirit was offering a $26 fare per person to Orlando, and I liked the flight time even better than our Southwest offering. So I booked our flights on Spirit, and canceled our Southwest flight (we kept our one way flight back from Orlando to Philadelphia).

Our one-way Spirit flight cost us only $194  (4 tickets and 3 checked bags) on Spirit…compared tot the 63,500 rapid rewards points the Southwest flight was going to cost. At even the most modest value you’re talking about $635, but probably closer to $900. Southwest credited my account back right away, it was so easy. We love Southwest for that reason (but don’t mind flying Spirit when the price is right, and this price was RIGHT).

All tolled, we spent $194 and about 40,000 Rapid Rewards(for the flight back) to fly four people roundtrip to Orlando. BOTTOM LINE: Points are not always your best option for flights. If you plan on doing any other flying, you can bank those points for another trip and choose another option for Orlando.

Fall break trips to Cancun are looking really nice right now, and I’m feeling glad that I didn’t blow all of my Southwest Rapid Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards on a stupid flight to Orlando.

Just like last time… realize 6 nights at the Dolphin aren’t enough, and splurge for one night at a Disney deluxe resort so you can get magic bands and magical express – AKA How we stayed at the Polynesian for $260/night

Feeling comfortable because I’ve done this before, I logged onto Mouseowners.com and posted that I was looking for one night at a Disney Vacation club studio on the first night of our trip. There are plenty of people willing to sell you a few of their points, and for prime properties (Villas at Grand Floridian, Polynesian, Yacht club, Bay Lake Tower at the Contemporary) they often ask for $15 or $16/point.. this is the same that you would pay through reputable brokers like DVC Rental Store and David’s Vacation Rentals, and I’m on here to get a deal (not to spend $15-$16/point). So  a couple people sent me messages and said the only thing left in all of Disney Vacation club studios for that night was the Polynesian.

I’m sorry, EXCUSE ME, did you say the Polynesian? As in, the only thing to top this might be the Grand Floridian, MAYBE, but we’re talking newly renovated, fireworks-from-the-beach Polynesian that I literally NEVER EVER thought that I would ever get to stay at (because I’m way too cheap)? (Get it together, Melissa)..

Yes, the very same. They wanted $14/point, and I offered $13/point. DEAL. It ended up costing about $260, which is A LOT for me, but I took into account magical express (a savings for us of about $60 in shuttle costs) and magic bands (which Disney charges $12 for, and we got 5 for free), and the fact that it is the POLYNESIAN, and I was happy to oblige. DID WE JUST BOOK THE POLYNESIAN? WHAT??? For giggles, I checked to see what Disney wanted to charge me for that room. With taxes, it was over $600. Um, no, thank you. But thank you, DVC owner!

Food/Dining

I spend a lot of time researching trips, it’s kind of my thing. I’m also a firm believer in grocery delivery service (in everyday life, as well as vacations). For this trip, I saved a ton of money by using Safeway’s grocery delivery service to the Dolphin. It was FREE, and the drivers do not accept tips, and they offered $20 off your first order. A win-win all around. I spent about $100 on groceries for breakfast, snacks, drinks and some lunches. It saved us a ton of money over breakfast at the hotel and snacks and drinks in the park/hotel, and when you’re at Disney, and getting to the park for rope drop (when the park opens) can make or break you, convenience is key.

Also, we have a few other methods that work really well with saving money on food at Disney – we still had about $180 in Disney dollars to spend on food while there, and we have a couple other tips we use. There’s one thing that I do often at quick service restaurants — you’re hot, and you’re not terribly hungry… order a kids meal. It is significantly cheaper, and often the portions work fine for adults, and it includes a drink. For our family of four (kids are 2 and 5), one adult meal and one kids meal is plenty.

Soup to nuts.. this trip probably cost us about $1500 with food, airfare, hotel and (3) park tickets.  We also signed up for a total of 4 cards – 3 for me (SPG, Marriott, Southwest), 1 for hubs (Disney visa) – over the course of a year, and we still have points leftover for future travels. Retail value of this trip… if I could guess.. was probably close to $6000. $1500 wouldn’t even get you a week at a beach house at the Jersey Shore (let alone dining). If you would like assistance in saving money on your next trip, feel free to reach out. It might seem complicated – but just picking a few things to do can really help you save (sign up for the Disney Visa – or book your hotel through a DVC owner – or signup for one airline card to get free airfare).

One card could save you hundreds – sometimes well over $1,000!

Safe Travels,

Melissa

 

 

 

 

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$200 in spending money for Disney

free spending money for disneyI’ve talked in length about how my family had a $5,000 Disney Deluxe vacation for about $1,000. Once we had everything else booked, I started to focus on spending money – money for food, souvenirs, etc. By far the easiest way I racked up $200 in Disney gift cards was by signing up for the Disney Rewards Visa card. This is a NO ANNUAL FEE! Visa that will earn you $200 in Disney gift cards simply by spending $500 on the card in three months.  (UPDATE 3/2018: It is now a $200 statement credit – versus a gift card – but this gives you even more flexibility!)Put all of your spending on there and you should be able to get there in a few weeks – let alone a few months! If you try to sign up for this visa card on Disney’s website, you will only earn a $50 gift card. Through my referral link, you can earn a cool $200! Not bad, not bad (They do issue the $200 gift cards for their Premier Visa that comes with a $49 annual fee – and like I’ve said before – we don’t pay fees if we don’t have to – fees are for suckers). It is also worth noting that you earn 1% back in Disney dollars on all purchases with no limit to how much you can earn.

Once I signed up for this card through another person’s referral, I spent the $500 right away, and had my gift card before the statement cycle even ended (it goes without saying that I paid off my balance in full – because – say it with me once more – we don’t pay fees! Fees are for suckers!). I’ve since signed up my husband (and he got a cool Darth Vader card), and he said,

“That’s it? I just spend $500 and I get $200?? No catch?”

“No, honey. No catch. Now get to spending so we can go to Disney again!”

What sweetened the deal even more? I referred him to get the card – so I got $50 on top of the $200 he will get from signing up for the card! Win, win, people. Win, win. So sign up already. What are you waiting for? 🙂

Top Ten Travel Tips with Kids

  • #1 – No grandparent left behind

Speaking of making travel less daunting, one more thing we did to ensure a smooth vacation in Puerto Rico– we brought Nana (it didn’t take much convincing, haha).

Bringing a grandparent on vacation is number one in my book. Come to think of it, we always bring a grandparent. I can only think of one vacation we have taken since my oldest was born where we did not bring a grandparent, and it was a 50 minute flight and only 4 nights. We have taken at least 10 vacations since he was born and the rest have been with at least one grandparent.It makes for a much more pleasant experience for all. Date nights for mom and dad, being able to spend more one-on-one time with each kid and with your spouse. And grandparent gets to spend time with grands. No cons here, only pros.

#2 – Know the rules of your airline

No matter what airline you’re taking – do your homework. It pays to know the ins and outs of what they allow you to bring for babies and kids. Most airlines (even Spirit and Frontier) will allow you to bring a diaper bag in addition to your carry on/personal item for free. You are also able to gate check strollers and carseats for free. Also, be aware of charges for things like checked bags, carry ons, selecting your seat, etc. I have no problem flying Spirit or Frontier if the price is right because I am well-versed in their fee schedule. You should be,too. The majority of those that complain about budget airlines are those who don’t do their homework and are stuck paying $100 for a carry-on bag at the airport. We don’t pay fees. Fees are for suckers.

#3- Know the TSA rules for traveling with kids

Most people know the 3-1-1 rule for TSA (no liquids larger than 3 oz. allowed in a carry on, and all liquids must fit in 1 quart-sized bag). However, if traveling with babies (and even toddlers), TSA is very flexible and will accommodate bottles – just put them out (visible) on the x-ray belt when going through security and they will take them and scan them and give them back to you (can even be regular milk, not just formula or breastmilk). I imagine that your mileage may vary outside of the U.S., but I have done this numerous times in many different airports, and have had no issue.

#4  If you’ve got a baby, get a good carrier and use it.

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Ergo in Old San Juan

I can’t tell you how much our Ergo 360 has been a lifesaver on our last two trips. If you are a babywearer, it is invaluable (and if you are not, you may be easily converted). Kiddos feel safe, and you have your arms/hands free. I wore our now one year-old in the airport, my husband hiked through the rainforest with her (and she fell asleep), we walked up and down the cobblestone streets of San Juan – and none of this we could have done with a stroller (except the airport). Speaking of which – in a last minute decision, we decided to forego bringing the stroller on this trip. And I can’t tell you how many times we said, “thank God we didn’t bring the stroller” – because we had so much other stuff packed with the kids.

#5 If you’ve got a baby – get a gopod. Take it everywhere. 14915178_10155366032263102_3835761312433670567_n

This is another item (like the Ergo) that I had for my second child and not my first. It has paid off tenfold. It folds up like a camping chair and sets up in seconds. We have packed it in our checked luggage on two flights, taken it on a beach vacation, taken it to the grandparents, friends’ houses, everywhere. It has held up tremendously. My daughter is a little too big for it (she could probably climb out if she really tried), but we still took it to Puerto Rico and it kept her contained and she was content. I can’t say enough about this thing. We love it!

#6- Your under two year-old can travel without a seat – but I wouldn’t always recommend it.

I’m not getting all judge-y here. My son flew twice as a lap infant and my daughter flew as a lap infant on our last trip when she was six months. But now, at one year, and the thought of a four-hour flight, I took a pause. I originally did not purchase a seat for her. But as the date grew closer, and I had a sense that flight prices might soon increase, I purchased a ticket (on points) for her. I was so glad I did. Both flights were full, so she would not have had a seat had I not purchased one. She felt at home in her car seat, fell asleep 5 minutes after takeoff, and slept for two hours.

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My daughter cozy and comfy on the plane

I was able to get some rest (not sleep) and enjoy my snack and drink with my tray table down. I don’t know how much rest either of us would have gotten had she been on my lap. The same goes for our return flight, which had a bit more turbulence so I was also grateful for the safety her car seat provided.  Financially it might not always be an option, and if the flight were shorter (and I didn’t have the points to spare) I probably wouldn’t have done it. But this was another “man, I’m so glad we did that…” moment. It was the right call.

#7 Pack a bag that is just baby related for the plane.
You want all baby-related items close by and all together. No need to be rifling through a bigger bag when you just need to get to the diaper changing supplies. Speaking of which, it’s great to have a small pouch with just a changing mat, a couple diapers and wipes. I do this every time we travel so I don’t have to lug a diaper bag into the airplane bathroom (or anywhere, for that matter).

#8 Bring an extra set of clothes for YOU on the plane.

We all bring at least an extra set of clothes for our kids. But you will be grateful when all those snacks and milk you gave your kid comes hurling up on you. I don’t speak from experience, but I’m always comforted knowing I’ve got a spare t-shirt in my bag. It’s good practice even if you don’t have kids, in case your checked bag goes missing. You never know what can happen, so be prepared.

#9 – Have realistic expectations. 

Vacationing with kids is not the same as before. Things can go downhill fast so don’t try to overdo it. Factor in plenty of rest time and kidfriendly activities (i.e., pool/beach time). This is especially important at Disney World – we typically plan mornings at the parks and afternoons for naps/pool and it works beautifully. Some of my best travel memories are unplanned activities/down time. When we stray from this plan (push ourselves into the afternoon before we leave the park), let’s just say it can spiral out of control pretty quickly. This rule of thumb is good to stick to no matter what your travel plans. Try to stick to normal sleep/nap routines as much as you can.

#10 – Have fun!

This should go without saying – but forget the naysayers and go for it! These will be memories that will last forever. Your child might forget the toys that you have bought them – but they won’t forget the trips you’ve taken. So many people are shocked when I tell them I took my kids to Puerto Rico (they assume I left them at home). I don’t get it – what kid doesn’t love the beach and the pool?

Plan, bring an extra set of hands if you can, set realistic expectations, and make some memories!

Safe Travels,

Melissa

 

Travel (with kids) to Puerto Rico on the cheap(er)

17190695_10155869013998102_2659262322326950908_nOur family in paradise

We just came back from a glorious week in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. All told, we spent $44 for airfare for four people. Thanks to Rapid Rewards, which is Southwest’s frequent flyer program, we were able to score roundtrip flights for each person for roughly 12,500 points roundtrip plus $11. I talk up Southwest’s rapid rewards program more than any other airline program because it is, for my family, simply the best program out there (in the “points world,” it is often overlooked because there is no first or business class, but hey, I’m not fancy, I just like to get where I’m going). If you live near an airport that Southwest flies from (and their destinations are of interest to you), it really is a no brainer. I won’t even get into the no bag fees, no change fees, etc. on this post – let’s simply talk about their rewards program.

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Why we luv Southwest Rapid Rewards

The first thing that Southwest has all over other loyalty programs is that they offer award seats on every flight – unlike other airlines (Ahem, I’m not talking to you American) that offer very limited award flight availability. If there’s a ticket, Southwest will offer it as an award seat as well. The biggest difference between Southwest’s program and others is that their award seats are valued based on the actual cost of the flight – so if the flight is $100, the points cost might be 5,000, and if the flight is $200, the points cost might be 10,000. Those aren’t exact amounts, but you get the idea of how it is factored.  Most other airlines have a flat set amount of points for peak, off-peak, etc., regardless of the cost of the ticket. If you book Southwest and the flight price goes down (and, subsequently, the cost of points), you can get the points refunded. It’s a great program. Because Southwest is generally cheaper than other major carriers, the value you get with points is higher. For example, if American Airlines even had award flight availability (and that’s a big IF), it would cost me, at minimum, 25,000 points per person for a roundtrip flight to Puerto Rico, and that would be during an off-peak time. It might seem like a better deal (because perhaps the flight cost is $400), but for my money (and my points), a roundtrip flight for $240 or 12,500 points is just all around better. Besides, even if I HAD the amount of points to swing it – if anyone in my party is paying cash for their ticket, it could potentially be very expensive. On this trip, we purchased one roundtrip ticket for $240, and the balance of the tickets were paid with points +$11.

Ok, ok, we get it… but what about getting the points?

Let me back up a second. I have the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which has the Ultimate Rewards program. This program offers great flexibility when it comes to loyalty programs – they are partners with Southwest, British Airways, AirFrance, KoreanAir, Singapore, United, Virgin Atlantic, IHG, Marriott, Hyatt, Ritz Carlton, not to mention you can use your points to redeem for travel through websites like Expedia, etc. The card currently has a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after $4,000 spend in three months. There is a $99 annual fee that is waived for the first year. You also earn 1% back on all purchases, and 2% back on travel and dining (this includes trips to Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, etc.).  So, most of the points earned from this trip were actually earned on my Chase Sapphire, not my Southwest card. I find it valuable to have liquidity with my points (i.e., not have them wrapped up in one loyalty program) and then transfer them when my travel plans solidify. But if you are certain that your travel plans include a Southwest flight and don’t have the card already, I would recommend the Southwest Rapid Rewards plus card with only a $1,000 minimum spend in the first three months for 40,000 points (EDIT: This used to be a signup of 50,000 points for $2,000 spend but it has since been lowered). The annual fee is only $69 but it isn’t waived the first year. I have both cards, and I find value in both. DISCLAIMER: If you click on my referral link, my points bank will thank you.

Be open to other airports

All that being said, when we were shopping around deciding on what we wanted to do for a winter vacation, I immediately started looking at Southwest for my long-winded reasons stated above. Baltimore is a hub of Southwest and they fly nonstop to many Caribbean destinations, including Aruba, Jamaica, (ooh, I wanna take ya…)Bahamas,  Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, etc. Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport is about 90 minutes from us, and while it is farther than the 35 minute drive to Philadelphia International (PHL), the options we have with Southwest flights make it worth the drive. It is also a smaller, clean airport, much more manageable than PHL, and things just go smoother there. I mean, have you ever waited FOREVER for your bags to come out at PHL (after you finally find the right carousel)? Of course you have. By the time we got to baggage claim at BWI our bags were sitting there waiting and the carousel wasn’t even turning anymore (only because we had stopped for a bathroom break and took our time getting off the plane – #familytravelproblems).

Ok, ok, Daly Traveler, get back to the travel plan. So we were researching Southwest travel destinations for a winter vacation. The idea of the Caribbean seemed very enticing, but I immediately was drawn to PR because the kids don’t have passports and I figured it would be a good starter trip for them to introduce them to island life. Passports in and of themselves are not a big deal, but the idea of doing the customs thing with a four year-old and a one year-old seemed less than ideal, especially after a four-hour flight. Neither are new to flying (though this was only the second flight for our one year-old) but with a full travel day ahead I felt it best to limit any additional hurdles to starting our vacation.  It was a new destination for me and the husband as well, and I’m always up for a new adventure (well, maybe before kids I was more of an adventurer…).

Saving our points and $ and booking an AirBNB

Once I saw the points cost of flights and decided we could swing it, I immediately started looking at AirBNB (If you use my referral link – you get $40 travel credit). Even though I have become something of a points junkie, I still prefer to rent vacation rentals over using points for hotels, as my husband & I have done for the last 8 years or so. When you factor in kids, it becomes even more of a necessity.  It’s just nice to have a kitchen (I really don’t mind doing some of my own cooking on vacation), and the extra space + the opportunity to live like a local has always been more of our vacation style. And, I don’t know about you, but my daughter goes to bed at 7:30 p.m., and I don’t. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve done the cruise thing and stayed at hotels/resorts (especially in Disney, where location trumps living space), but spending 7+ days in a small hotel room just isn’t as appealing. We have used HomeAway and VRBO to stay in Isla Mujeres, Mexico for $35/night, St. Thomas for $130/night, Myrtle Beach ($50/night), Ireland, the Jersey shore, you name it. This was our first time booking with AirBNB. I first perused my usual, HomeAway, but found more options on AirBNB. I also liked the way AirBNB is set up, so you can see who you’re renting from, and they can see who you are. We ultimately settled on a beautiful 2 bedroom, 2 bath on the beach in the heart of the resort area, Isla Verde, for $1,200 for 7 days. If we were still in our B.C. (Before Children) days, we probably would have picked an off-the-beaten-path beach cottage for $600, but now we’ve got kids, and comfort and location is key (besides, B.C. I would have paid for the flights, and now we had a little bit of wiggle room to pay for accommodations). Being 5 minutes from the airport and within walking distance to restaurants, pharmacies and the beach makes the idea of traveling with kids a little less daunting.

Upon check in, we were received by the owner, who provided a complimentary “mini bar” with a plethora of snacks and cold drinks, and had already setup my son’s futon as a bed, all of which made me ever so grateful, as I had two sleepy and hungry kids and it was one less thing I had to worry about. AirBNB for the win!

17200928_10155869014403102_2624421343045966676_nour view from the balcony of our condo

Speaking of less daunting.. my next post will be my top ten suggestions on traveling with kids.. including babies.

 

Renting Disney Vacation Club Points

In  my last post I mentioned about renting Disney vacation club points to stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for $175. Because that can be an involved process, I saved all the details for this blog post.

ultimately used Mouseowners.com to find someone to rent points from, but I first used DVC Rental Store to acquaint myself with how to rent points (and I did get a quote from them as well). The whole idea of DVC is that it is a timeshare so owners have a certain amount of points that they own, and sometimes they can’t use them so they rent them out for that particular year. I went to the Mouseowners.com Confirmed Reservations OR Points Available For Rent/Transfer  board and found someone that was renting out points at $11/point, and the going rate on DVCrentalstore.com is $15/point.

To understand the process of renting points, the first thing you should do is go to the “points calculator” on the DVC rental store to determine how many points you need to rent for each different Disney Vacation club property type.  Depending on time of year and type of room determines how many points you need. All DVC properties are deluxe level properties and they range from studios to 1, 2 and three bedroom villas. Some properties are exclusively DVC (like old Key West resort)  and most others are within other deluxe level Disney properties like Polynesian, Grand Floridian,  and Animal Kingdom Lodge. They all provide accommodations that are typically larger than other Disney hotel rooms. The the 1, 2 and 3 bedroom villas all have full kitchens. Studios look similar to a hotel room and have a microwave, toaster, coffee maker and mini fridge. DVC Rental Store provides a list of all DVC properties and photos.

To date, here are the DVC properties in Disney World:

  • Animal Kingdom Villas
  • Bay Lake Tower (next to Contemporary Resort)
  • Beach Club Villas
  • Boardwalk Villas
  • Grand Floridian Villas
  • Old Key West Resort
  • Polynesian Village Resort
  • Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa
  • Villas at Wilderness Lodge

 

Also, please understand that seeing a point value on the calculator has no bearing on whether or not there is any availability. DVC books up much quicker than other types of Disney resort accommodations, so it is best to book far in advance (you can book anything 7 months in advance – anything between 7 and 11 months must be booked by a DVC owner of that particular resort. 11 months is the farthest in advance that you can book). For example, Grand Floridian availability is pretty much unheard of, because there is just not that many DVC rooms to begin with (so you would need a Grand Floridian owner at 11 months out to even have a chance). Saratoga Springs usually has the most availability because it is the largest DVC property and you can also usually have good luck with Animal Kingdom Lodge.

If you go on the Mouseowners forum, you will see people post that they have points for various resorts – the resort they have doesn’t really matter unless it is a matter of timeframe. For example, if they own points at Saratoga Springs or Old Key West, they can still rent out their points for Animal Kingdom Lodge (or any other resort) it just has to be within 7 months of the check-in date. If you want to book further out (between 7 and 11 months) then you have to rent points from someone who is an owner at that particular resort. So I determined the points needed and then went to Mouseowners.com (and created a login) and found someone who was willing to rent out their points for a lesser amount – then they checked availability for my dates (because you have to be a DVC owner to check availability) and then we did a conference call and called and booked my room. You must have all names of everyone in your party at the time of booking. I then paid them through paypal after it was all set up.

If the idea of that makes you a little uneasy – then the best thing to do is rent from DVCrentalstore (or any other reputable site like it). DVCrentalstore also has a page marked “discounts” where the points are less (like $9 or $10/point) if you can do a trip in the next few months and there is availability at one of the properties. Ultimately the price is still very good compared to renting from Disney directly, about half or less than what you would pay them.

I’d be happy to help you if you have any other questions about navigating the process or want help trying to find availability/reservation.

Safe Travels,

Melissa

 

Staying in Style at Disney World on the cheap, Part 2.

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In order to make this manageable, I’ve divided it into parts. I couldn’t just go into this without a background, so for that, read Part 1.

DISCLAIMER: If you do not have excellent credit, or you cannot pay off your credit cards every month, or you just swear off credit card use entirely, then most of this this isn’t for you and I absolutely would not recommend doing this unless you are committed to only using cards for regular spending and paying off the balance every month. Look at Step #2.5 – because that doesn’t involve credit card rewards – but the rest of it does.

At least 12 months before your trip  (depending on your spending habits, maybe 18 months before your trip), you should begin this process if you are planning to hit steps 1, 2, and 3 (2.5 and 4 are really overkill but I just can’t leave well enough alone).

If you have a trip that is coming up sooner than that, but haven’t booked airfare yet, I would recommend going for steps 2 and 4 and leaving the rest of it out. That will give you money for park spending or meals and pay for your airfare.

This is lengthy, so here’s a shortcut to each section.

STEP 1: Acquire 50,000 points to stay on property at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort by having two members of the same household sign up for the SPG American Express Card. Marriott Rewards Premier Visa card  

UPDATE April 2018: Since this time, SPG and Marriott have merged. The SPG American Express signup bonus is not the same. The Marriott Rewards Premier Visa Card signup bonus offers the same signup bonus as the previous SPG offer and can be used the same as the SPG bonus. It says 75,000 points, but 75,000 points = 25,000 SPG points. A lot to wrap your head around, I know.

You want to do this first, to ensure you can book your stay as early as possible and before you book your flights.

The Dolphin is a Sheraton resort, operated under Starwood. Starwood Preferred Guest is the loyalty program, and the Dolphin is a Category 4 Property, requiring 10,000 points per night. If you book four nights, you get the fifth night free, so it would be 50,000 points for six nights.

If you have stayed “on property” before at a Disney hotel – you’re probably thinking, “But the Dolphin isn’t a Disney hotel.” Well, you’re partially right. The Dolphin uses all Disney parks transportation, including boat transportation to Hollywood Studios and Epcot, and is eligible for extra magic hours. Because it is operated by Starwood and not Disney, you are not eligible to receive complimentary magic bands or travel on Magical Express airport transportation. If you want those perks, you could do one night at a value resort on your way in, get the bands and the magical express, and either do another night on the way back to the airport or book one-way airport transportation. If you already have magic bands from a prior trip, you can link them for this stay as well.

I was nervous having usually stayed at Disney-operated hotels and some of the reviews were not great, but lemme tell you.

The Dolphin is an Epcot area resort. It is also undergoing a major renovation where all rooms should be completed this year (we had a non-renovated room, and it was fine, too). The pool area is amazing and it has some of the best restaurants on property. All Epcot area resorts run around $300+ a night to stay. You are walking to distance to Hollywood Studios and the International Gateway entrance to Epcot. That’s amazing. Also, there are indeed perks of this not being a Disney-owned resort. The Dolphin operates mostly as a convention hotel, meaning a lot of the guests are not going to the parks. BIGGEST PERK (and you know this if you have ever stayed at Disney): the buses are NEVER crowded. You don’t have to wait for a second bus – whether leaving the resort or leaving the parks. You don’t have to stand with a cranky toddler who needs to sleep. We walked right on a bus with 10 people on it after Wishes at Magic Kingdom. If you have ever waited for a bus at 10 pm and had to get on with an overtired child, you know the struggle and you know this, in and of itself, is WORTH IT.

Ok, Melissa, back to the plan…

In order to get free nights at the Dolphin hotel, you and your spouse can sign up for the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Card. (UPDATE April 2018: This sign up bonus has changed – the Marriott visa card for you and your spouse is the way to go now – you will get 75,000 points – equivalent to 25,000 SPG points. SPG & Marriott have merged, and there is new loyalty program coming in August which I will update all of this information when it is available. Everything else here applies, just different card).Each card comes with a sign-up bonus of 25,000 points after you spend $3,000 in three months (Annual fee of $85 is waived for the first year). Since I pay an exorbitant amount of money for daycare, this was easy. Then refer your spouse to signup for the card through Chase’s referral program, get a referral bonus, and do the same for your spouse’s card. Don’t apply for the second card until you’ve completed the minimum spend on the first.

Combine your points. Since you are immediate family members, SPG/Marriott allows you to transfer points to a family member living in your household. You can do it online, it is very easy.  It costs 50,000 starpoints to stay six nights (it is 10,000 points per night, and the fifth night is free), and you should have around 53,000 points between the two of you. That’s enough for six nights. UPDATE: Since I original blogged, the points per night has increased from 10,000 points to 12,000 points. I originally had enough for six night at the Dolphin with around 55,000 points. That would be enough for five nights now. If you refer your partner to get the card and secure a referral bonus, you should have close to enough for six nights as well. 

So by the end of 2015 I had met the minimum spend on both cards (and paid the balances in full every month).  I transferred my husband’s starpoints to my account, and I saw that total number of 57,000 points or so. So I called the SPG line and told them I wanted to book a room and I gave them my dates. It’s important to do this at least six months in advance if you can, to make sure your dates are available. The Swan & Dolphin tend to block out rooms during certain times since it is a convention hotel.

“It’s 50,000 points,” the rep said.

I knew I had a little extra. “Do you have any point upgrades available?”

“Let’s see, we have a balcony resort view available for 1,000 points per night,” he said.

“Sure, I’ll take the balcony,” I said.

“Ok, you’re booked and you’ll be receiving an e-mail confirmation. But you will be responsible for the $25 nightly resort fee,” the representative said.

I hung up the phone.

What just happened? Did I just book six nights at the Dolphin and it literally cost me $25 per night? How is that even possible???

The same room was showing on their website for $2,400, PLUS the $25 nightly resort fee. I still didn’t fully believe it.

STEP 2: Acquire 50,000 points for your airfare from the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card. UPDATE: This is now 40,000 point bonus, not 50,000, with a $1,000 minimum spend.

(This card comes with a $69 annual fee that is not waived in the first year. That 50,000 points equates to around $800 or $900 in airfare. If you are flying from Philadelphia, depending upon your dates, you should be able to get you four flights roundtrip to Orlando for close to 50,000 points.

When it came time to book my flights, I went on the website and had enough points to purchase the four flights I needed. “This is great,” I thought. It costs me all of $44 for four flights and roughly 50,000 points from Philadelphia to Orlando. But it gets better.

Everyone knows Southwest doesn’t charge change fees – but in addition to that, they will also refund you if the price drops on your flight. You “change” your flight online to the same flight with the lower price – Southwest refunds you the difference (if you pay with cash, you get a travel voucher that is good for one year from the original purchase date – but if you pay with points, you just get your points back – no catch!). So I decided to keep an eye on the flight costs and sure enough, there were multiple fare sales. I eventually got back 20,000 of the original 50,000 I used. So I had 20,000 points to use on another trip at a later date. Awesome!

Middle and completely unnecessary Step 2.5: Decide you want to stay in Animal Kingdom Lodge for one night because 6 nights at the Dolphin just isn’t enough, and because you want the magic bands, and “Hello! Bucket list!”

It’s March now, and I know that Southwest is going to release flight schedules soon. I’ve already got my points but I hadn’t actually booked the flights yet.  But I had an idea. I kind of wanted to add another day to our trip. I didn’t have enough points for another night at the Dolphin, but I had read about being able to stay in Disney Vacation Club villas at a fraction of the price of booking through Disney by renting points from DVC owners. I had read a lot about this so I was really familiar with the process (I will post a separate blog on that entirely, it’s just too much for one post), so I found someone on Mouseowners.com who had some extra points she was willing to rent. I rented a Savanna View Studio at Animal Kingdom Lodge for the first night of our trip. It cost me about $175 (a splurge compared to the Dolphin, but this room goes for over $500 with taxes on Disney’s website!). I could have booked a standard view for $155, but I figured, go big or go home. You’re at AKL and it’s one night, and taking the rest of this trip on a shoestring could afford us a splurge. When I received the e-mail confirmation for the Animal Kingdom room, I really couldn’t believe it.

Did I just book us a savanna view room at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for $175?? I’m used to staying at value rooms!

Back to original plan…

STEP 3: Acquire points for cash toward your park tickets.

There are a number of cards that let you do this – what you are trying to do is sign up for a card that lets you get statement credit as a signup bonus for travel purchases. I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. It had a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 in three months (I had a kid in daycare, and I put all of my monthly spend on this card, so again, totally doable), plus an additional 5,000 if you add an authorized user (and 2x points on dining, travel, etc.). By the time I met the minimum spend and added the additional user, I had acquired 59,000 points – enough for $590 toward reimbursement of park tickets. I purchased my park tickets through undercover tourist, and received double the points for the purchase. I bought 7 day park hoppers, and saved about $60 each purchasing from Undercover tourist than through Disney (and Chase doesn’t reimburse you for park tickets purchased through Disney because somehow it doesn’t count as travel, I still can’t figure that out, but just trust me on this). It was super easy. I then submitted for the reimbursement through Chase (easy to do, can do it through your phone) and received a statement credit. I got back about $660 of the roughly $1200 I spent on park tickets with the signup bonuses and regular spending.

If you wanted to take this a step farther – you could have you and your spouse sign up for the card – and then you would be able to get even more $ off the tickets. But my husband was already having enough of me signing him up for cards (really, I only signed him up for one card) so we just did the one.

So far I’m in the hole about $700 for three park tickets, six nights at the Dolphin, and park tickets.

Melissa’s (completely optional) Step 4: (Because I can’t leave well enough alone)
Sign up for the Disney Visa to get a $200 gift card (UPDATE: statement credit) for meals, incidentals, or more $ toward park tickets

By now it’s June before our trip, we are all booked and everything is paid for (or not paid for, hahaha!). We’re just going to be responsible for our meals, and I had purchased a couple Disney gift cards when different offers popped up from retailers on gift cards (another post entirely). Between me and my husband I had signed up for three new cards in the last year and he signed up for one. My credit score was as good or better than when I started. I still had zero credit card debt. Then the Disney Visa offer came up, so I thought, why not? This is a no annual fee visa that gives you a $200 gift card after you spend $500. Easy enough. I had the gift card within two weeks of opening the card.

Step 5: Book roundtrip ground transportation – and – GASP! – just pay cash for it.

The only thing left I needed for our trip was airport transportation. The Dolphin does not participate in Magical Express, but of course I could have used it for the beginning of our trip since I booked at Animal Kingdom Lodge, but I decided to just go ahead and book roundtrip transportation. I found a private airport shuttle for $110 roundtrip. It was like VIP service, and they even made a grocery stop for us so we could purchase snacks. I took advantage of this and purchased some granola bars, water, sandwiches, etc. for a couple of days and coffee creamer (free coffee in the room is great but I am not using that powdered creamer. Bleh). We may be staying deluxe, but I still don’t want to spend money unnecessarily.

Taking the trip – is it too good to be true?

So my final tally was 4 cards for me, and 1 for my husband. I had a $200 Disney gift card and everything else was paid for and booked, and we spent about $890 for about $5,000 worth of travel.

Up until we actually went on the trip, there was still part of me that thought, it was in fact, too good to be true. What if the airport transport doesn’t go as planned? It did. What if the Dolphin is cockroach infested? It wasn’t. In fact, it was amazing. What if they won’t transfer our luggage from Animal Kingdom to the Dolphin? They did, no questions asked.

This trip was the best trip we have taken so far, and was probably only more expensive than the first trip I took with my family at the Days Inn. Perhaps one day I will elaborate on the trip in a blog post. But for now, you’ve got to get working on planning that trip – and I didn’t want to waste any more of your valuable time!

Safe Travels,

Melissa

Staying in Style at Disney World on the cheap, Part 1.

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Dreams do come true, and this actually happened.

One of the most common misconceptions is that you have to be a frequent flier to earn frequent flier miles. In fact, that’s probably the hardest way to earn frequent flier miles, unless you travel a ton for business. In this blog post I will show you how to leverage credit card rewards to book a fantastic trip for your family to Disney World (this was done for four people – except park tickets – I only purchased three).

Before we begin….

A background… a frugal girl’s Disney World experience

My first trip to Disney World was when I was 5. We drove from New Jersey, and we stayed in a cockroach-infested Days Inn. We toured Magic Kingdom and Epcot, used trash bags instead of ponchos and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But the parts that stick out in my mind were swimming at the Days Inn pool, having Donald Duck sign my autograph book (he was as feisty as ever) and getting a Goofy hat. It was glorious and a dream come true.

My second trip was when I was 15. We drove from New Jersey, and stayed in a Days Inn that wasn’t cockroach infested. We toured Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and “MGM Studios.” We brought ponchos this time. It was terribly hot, but still glorious.

Then trips three, four and five were spent on property. We flew, so, that was great. We also stayed in a value resort twice and a moderate once. That was great, too. Those trips came with a price tag, but a reasonable one. We had gone two years in a row, with talks of going again in 2016. I didn’t want to stay in a value resort again (although totally adequate if that is what your budget allows!), and now my son was at the age where I would have to pay for his ticket. How can we keep this up?

The sixth trip in 2016 was the trip that I planned the furthest in advance – about a year. We had gone in January of 2014 and 2015, and I was pregnant and due February 2016 so there was no way we were going in January again. So I began in the fall of 2015 to think about our next trip which we planned to take in September 2016. I had been doing some research on how to save on a Disney World trip, and had recently signed up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card  and got the signup bonus (if you follow my link here to sign up for the card – you’ll get the full 50,000 point bonus for a $69 annual fee – that is better than Southwest’s offer on their website of 40,000 points for the card with the $69 annual fee, so if you go through my referral link – it is better for you and me). I now knew that it was very easy to earn points, and wanted to learn more.

Let me reiterate that I pay off my balances every month. I don’t carry credit card balances and I never pay interest. If you cannot pay off your cards every month – THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. Some of these cards come with high interest rates – that’s how they can afford to give you the signup bonus. We are not going to let them get one over on us, are we? No, we are not!

I read this article and this article about maximizing credit card points to take a trip to Disney. It seemed too good to be true. I have great credit, and so does my husband (we are both well into the 800s), and I pay off my balances every month, so I thought I’d start small and see what happened. I didn’t fully intend to carry out all the steps if I felt like it was too much. But I had already earned my 50,000 Rapid Rewards points which was Step 2 in the plan, and I was still a year out from when I wanted to take my next trip. “What do I have to lose?” I thought.